An incomparable vista. Riding the twisting, gravelly tracks of Chianti at L’Eroica. (Photo Dustin Nordhus, Cicli Berlinetta)
The dust has quite literally begun to settle once again in northern Italy, where a few weeks back Gaiole played host to a couple of thousand cyclists set on recreating the feel of a bike race entirely devoid of Carbon Fibre, Synthetic Isotonic Potions, System Pedals, or any other development conceived over the past thirty years to make a ride last less long.
Of course we’re talking about L’Eroica, and Brooks was once again a proud sponsor of the event. Shortly before this year’s instalment we managed to get in touch with our good friend Mark Reber, who was making the trip over from the United States. He kindly agreed to collect some of his impressions of the weekend and commit them to paper for us, while taking many fine photographs (MR), some of which are interspersed below with those of his friend Rodger Lynch (RL) and Dustin Nordhus (DN). Now read on…
My eyes are making a circuit. First, the laptop screen. Next, the inky red wine from Greve in Chianti in a glass on the table. Then, to the window where autumn’s colors are beginning to come into full view. I take a sip of the Chianti and remember the bright sunshine filling the Piazza Marconi in Castelnuovo Berardenga. If I had a bit of cheese and some grapes right now, I might be able to relive that moment when L’Eroica 2011 was nearly complete for me save but a handful of kilometers of strade bianchi to go.
Hard to imagine that it was only a week ago that I sat in that piazza with my family who had met me for the tail end of one of the finest bicycle rides of my life. How fortunate to have them there, sharing the color, excitement, hospitality, and generosity of L’Eroica and Tuscany. All were on display in substantial measure that day.
Of course, I am not alone in my observation or experience. I may have been one of only a handful of Americans in this one-day ride through the countryside and culture of Tuscany, but I joined 3,000 others who were absorbing the best of what Chianti offers. There is a certain magic in the ride, reflecting the area and culture. The premise itself, a ride on vintage bicycles over traditional roads where the great Italian champions raced is a prescription for at least a bit of nostalgia.
As if to underscore the nostalgic nature of the area and the ride, the organizers start “lungo” riders in the dark. Under the lights in Piazza Ricasoli, Gaiole in Chianti, you sign-in, have your bike and lighting inspected, your carnet stamped, and off you go into a blur of dancing headlights behind you and red taillights in front of you.
The first turn in the direction of Castello Brolio is illuminated by kerosene torches, a sort of dramatic set decoration worthy of a film set in the 16th century. As you enter Madonna a Brolio, torches light the gates leading up to Castello Brolio, a bookend to the ones you passed at the turn just five kilometers back. If you know anything about the route, you know that you will be climbing, first on concrete, then on stone. With candles lighting the path and the dawn barely showing, your fellow riders are quiet, keeping a light touch on the pedals as they assess their skills and preparation for the many more kilometers to follow.
L’Eroica hardly needs set decoration to reveal its other-worldly nature, or rather, the world that it inhabits. It seems every twist and turn of the route reveals another canvas painted by a Renaissance master.
After those first tentative efforts in low gear up the gravel ramps to Brolio and the even more cautious descent, riders shake off their nervousness and begin the pacing required to finish, regardless of their choice of route. Fresh legs and a lightened mood carry you downhill to the first major course deviation. All roads lead to Pianella, where the shorter routes turn north and the longer ones south.
If you’ve chosen a longer route, as I did, you ride along undulating hills that switch to gravel soon enough. Then, a turn takes you west, where early morning light on nearby Siena’s towers fairly defines the yellow-brown color that the mines around this Renaissance city produced. In not too many more kilometers of asphalt and strade bianchi, riders are delivered to the stark “Crete Senesi.” The contrast with the scenery where you started just 40 kilometers north is significant.
Wish you were here? Hobby photographer Dustin Nordhus of Cicli Berlinetta was. (DN)
Not only is the scenery more stark, but so is the riding. The more benign, rolling strade bianchi sectors to the north give way to brutally steep, long pitches of gravel that reach 15% grades. At this point, your traditional leather cycling shoes spend more time on the ground than the pedals.
No matter the choice of percorso, all riders experience a similar mix of beautiful, though different, countryside, breathtaking vistas, charming villages and towns, and certainly the best food breaks on any organized ride you have experienced. Every “ristoro” is staffed with open, hospitable Chiantians serving the same delicious food enjoyed throughout Tuscany. When was the last time on a century tour or randonnee where you were served ribollita from a cast iron pot hung over an oak fire? And, never mind the energy drinks. Your fruit, cheese, stew, and salami is washed down with the signature Chianti, though a humbler blend than Barone Ricasoli might serve.
It is probably a fool’s errand, or certainly a writer’s arrogance, to try to convey all that L’Eroica is in a blog post. What sets L’Eroica apart from the many great organized rides in Europe and elsewhere is its purpose: to draw attention to the old roads and rural traditions while remembering the champions that made their mark on them. That makes the many kilometers of sometimes very difficult riding seem so much more important than your average trip on the two-wheeler.
By now, most readers know that the minimal requirements to participate in L’Eroica are to register before the ride fills up and bring a bicycle that pre-dates 1987, or at least has the characteristics of one. True, the committed turn up with bicycles worthy of a ride by Bartali or Coppi or even earlier, greatly increasing the “heroic” factor regardless of the length of the chosen percorso.
What of the riding itself? I can only speak as a rookie, though a veteran of organized rides of all kinds in the past 35 years and a very brief exposure to racing. L’Eroica stands alone in my experience.
Certainly, the strade bianchi, or white roads of gravel, and the numerous sectors of them make for a different kind of ride. For a newbie, apprehension gives way to acceptance that gives way to desire and possibly foolhardy belief that asphalt and gravel can be ridden alike.
It only takes a single major turn at 30kmh to realize that your grip on the surface, and reality, may be tentative.
Though the routes are scenic, the food gastronomic, and the organization top-notch, the routes certainly go beyond bucolic. They are intended to give the rider a sense of the struggle, the “sforzo” or effort that ride organizer Giancarlo Brocci identifies as a key factor in bicycling. L’Eroica is within reach of almost any rider with a choice of four alternative routes. Regardless of the choice, from 38K to 205K, you will certainly understand Brocci’s comments. You will hope to hear the encouragement that I heard from my brother as I left Piazza Ricasoli. “Forze,” he said in a quiet, deliberate voice. Strength for the ride.
Off the bike, there are distractions galore. Gaiole in Chianti leading up to and on the day of the ride is transformed from market town to vintage bicycle carnival with bicycles, vintage parts, bike clothing, food, wine, and all of the officialdom of any significant Gran Fondo. It is almost more than can be absorbed, even over 48-hours.
For a bicyclist and traveler, L’Eroica enriches the experience of a visit to Tuscany, even when you are not on the bicycle. Every hill and descent is more memorable. Every glass of wine is more satisfying. And, if even for a single day, you get the sense of being part of this land and its people in a way that goes beyond the transaction of your registration. You carry away a good bit of dust on your bike, sweat on your wool jersey, and the memories of traveling on two wheels over the same roads that Bartali and Coppi raced on, but that Chiantians still use every day.
Smiling through gritted teeth, Mark dutifully passes on our a commemorative saddle to Giancarlo Brocci, the event’s creator.